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From the wheelhouse of the Harbor Commander, I spotted two fat sea lions lounging on a buoy about halfway between the Silver Strand and the Navy shipyard. It was a bright warm February morning, and as they lolled in their languorous stupor, they seemed the embodiment of indolence. I raised an arm in a casual salute. The bigger of the sea lions raised a flipper in apparent response.

“Those guys have been out there almost every day,” said the captain, Steve Frailey. The Commander is a 50-foot riverboat-style tugboat, a rectangular shape with two vertical rubber-covered metal posts, called push knees, at the corners of the bow. A flat-bottom boat with a draft of about six feet and a top speed of eight knots, the tug was built from the hull of a former Navy landing craft. It’s one of about ten medium-sized tugs owned by Westcoast Tug & Barge, where Frailey is general manager, overseeing the crews and boats and regularly working as captain himself. Frailey is 38, dark-haired, and boyish looking; he had been telling me about several of their past jobs.

A low-draft tug

“We got a call from a friend with the Navy on a Saturday morning before Easter, and he said, ‘How fast can you get to Camp Pendleton?’ We said we could leave right away, what’s wrong? He said, ‘Well, we’ve one of these big Navy landing crafts in trouble.’ He said it’d gone in and hit the beach and broached, got sideways on the shore. So the on-scene commander decided the best thing was to send in another LCU to tow it off. So he sent in the other LCU, which also broached and landed pretty much on top of the first one. So they’ve got two of these big guys on the beach and they were beating each other up pretty bad. One of them was starting to take on water and sand through the engine room, starting to rupture. They wanted us to get up there because of our shallow draft, to get in there and tow them off. So we dash out to the tug and get up there and run about 3000 foot of line in through the surf, tied them off, and got them off the beach and into the belly of the mothership, and they transported them back to San Diego, and then we towed them in and got them into their slip. It’s funny that the Navy would call us to save them, but that’s what they needed, so that’s what we gave them.”

About a week before I went out on the Harbor Commander, I’d been having dinner with some people, and one man, a local lawyer, told me he didn’t think they had any tugs in the bay. Although I knew he was wrong, I didn’t have the exact information at my fingertips. Now I had learned there were lots of tugs in the bay.

There’s Foss Maritime with five tugs — four with 2000 hp and one with 750 — that do most of the work with the big commercial ships. Then Crowley showed up two years ago with two 3500 hp tugs. Foss and Crowley have tugs in all the ports on the West Coast and are in constant competition. The Navy uses six Chouest tugs. Chouest is based in New Orleans and makes its own boats. Then NASSCO has two small tugs for its shipbuilding and repair operations. And there are smaller companies like Curtin Maritime that has one 3000 hp oceangoing tug and three others in need of modification. In addition to these, there are several companies that use smaller tugs, such as Harbor Tug & Barge, and riverboat-style tugs, like Westcoast. So actually, there are about 30 tugs of various sizes in the bay, and around in the middle of May they have an annual tugboat parade. Of these companies, the fastest-growing company is Westcoast, which got into the tug business in 1990, builds its own tugs — modifying them from former Navy landing craft — and has been adding another one or two boats to its fleet each year.

Most of Westcoast’s tugs are in the 1000 hp range, with two in the 400 hp range. As a result, there is a wide area of application where Westcoast has been able to find work in which a large tug isn’t necessary. And the small tugs are cheaper to rent — $195 an hour as opposed to $725 an hour for a large tug. Frailey described the different sorts of work they had done for Scripps that had required modifying the tug and installing special equipment to suit the particular job.

“The last job we did for Scripps, we took the Harbor Captain and added berthing for scientists. We added an A-frame contraption at the bow, some winches, generators, hydraulic power, and compressors — a lot of different things went onto this little tug. We threw on a bunch of water jugs and canned food, and off they went for a few days at a time, dropping buoys and getting readings.

“A lot of people won’t touch stuff like that because it’s a one-time thing and they think, ‘We’re not going to make much money and it’s a big hassle.’ But it’s fun, we like it. It was different, we made a little money on it, we made some friends on it, and we got some ideas for the next time. And that’s why people like Scripps will come back again, because we’re enthusiastic about it — ‘Yeah, let’s figure this out, what do you want, oh that’s neat, let’s do it.’ And the guys who go out on the job feel a lot of pride. ‘Hey, guess what we did? We went out there and we figured out how fast the water moves at a thousand feet under in this one canyon or something.’ Or, we did some acoustical work with them, and the positioning of the boat was really critical and we had to get right on this mark and hold it there and the wind came up and the waves and they thought the whole thing would have to be aborted and cost a fortune and after they came back in at two in the morning, you know, I get the call that ‘Oh, we were successful,’ and they’re praising the captain and how he held it on station and they couldn’t believe they’d have been able to deploy and retract the buoy under those conditions and the only way they were able to be successful was the guy driving the boat, that he was able to do it.”

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